June Lake, Calif. — When it comes to the Eastern Sierra, getting there is half the fun -- unless you get stuck in a blinding snowstorm.
Heading north on U.S. 395 for a weekend ski trip last month, we drove into a blizzard just outside of Bishop. Tire chains and near-whiteout conditions limited speed to about 30 mph, and we crossed our fingers that Caltrans wouldn't close the highway, as it had the day before.
It was a relief to hit the turnoff for June Lake, a picturesque alpine village about 20 miles north of Mammoth. After our crawl in the snowstorm, our family of five would have been content with bunks in a boardinghouse. Instead, the condominium we had rented featured bedrooms bigger than ours at home and picture-window views across Gull Lake to the June Mountain ski area.
Too bad it's just for the weekend, I thought; this is a place you could settle down in for the winter.
In fact, we were lucky to have the condo at all. We began planning the trip in early December and found that many lodgings around June Mountain had been booked for months. We finally landed two nights at the Interlaken condominiums on Gull Lake. Because our weekend fell in the peak season when schools were on winter break, the rate for a two-bedroom condo was pricey -- $600 plus tax for two nights. (After the holidays we could have spent five nights midweek in the same place for just $100 more.)
To cut expenses, we skipped restaurant meals and brought food from home, taking advantage of the small but sufficient kitchen. The decision paid dividends; we could relax at meals without interruption, and there was no need to foolishly challenge icy roads after a glass or two of Merlot.
The drive to the condo is one reason we picked June Mountain in the first place. The scenery along U.S. 395 is stunning, even at 80 mph, with the scrubby desert floor rising to a wall of snowy granite peaks. Towns such as Big Pine and Independence stand apart along the highway, rich with elbow room, reminders that there are still places in California that aren't just specks in a giant suburb.
Smaller crowds were another factor. The resorts in Big Bear are hours closer, but clogged highways and swarming ski slopes, especially on weekends, quickly diminish that advantage. And there's nothing quite like getting off the top lift at June Mountain, elevation 10,174 feet, and surveying the magnificent Sierra Nevada crest.
Nearby is Interlaken, whose units are individually owned and can be booked by at least two agencies in town. We went through June Lake Properties Reservations. Our condo was clean and well maintained, although the decor, furnishings and kitchen appliances bordered on vintage. The microwave had a quirky mechanical dial timer that we never did master.
The place was exceptionally roomy, though, and we could have spent a week there without getting cabin fever.
Our plan called for a day or two of skiing at June Mountain. Saturday morning broke clear and cold, with a fresh mantle of snow -- perfect conditions. But after the frantic holiday season, my wife, Alison, and daughters Kelly, 18, and Katie, 11, decided they would like nothing better than to hang out at the condo, maybe taking out snow saucers for a few whirls. That left son Kevin, 16, and me to hit the slopes.
June Mountain is owned and operated by the same company that runs Mammoth Mountain, but it's a different experience. Mammoth lives up to its name with 3,500 skiable acres, 27 lifts and 150 trails. June has a fraction of that -- about 500 acres of slopes, seven lifts and 35 trails. More than one-third of Mammoth's runs are for advanced and expert skiers; 80% of June is rated for beginners or intermediates.
Not surprisingly, June attracts a higher percentage of families than Mammoth, as well as people who are simply looking for a mellower time. Some steep, twisting black-diamond runs can test your mettle, but the mountain is mostly geared for intermediates like me who will never be seen in a Warren Miller ski film, unless it's to show us stumbling off the chairlift.
Kevin, a snowboarder, decided to try his hand at skiing and signed up for a half-day lesson. That gave me the morning to ski on my own, taking long, wonderful runs down the mountain, gradually picking up speed as I worked the cobwebs out. The ski area was busier than I remembered from previous trips, but the fast-moving lines never had more than a dozen people ahead of me. Although packs of snowboarders and skiers would occasionally crowd a run, there were still plenty of those moments when I could look down the trail and see nothing but a wide blanket of powder.
Finding an open table at lunch was another matter. The lodge facilities at June are modest and showed signs of strain on a busy weekend. After fruitlessly tromping around for a table, Kevin and I finally asked a family if we could take two empty chairs at theirs. As at most ski resorts, burgers and bratwursts came at premium prices.